Martinez Resignation Prompts Debate Over Appointments

Currently governors get to fill open U.S. Senate seats, some want to change that.

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Florida Gov. Charlie Crist has vowed not to appoint himself to fill the seat vacated by Mel Martinez, who recently announced his resignation as the state's junior U.S. senator. But he could. The Constitution empowers governors to handpick senators to fill vacancies.

Florida's political drama, however, is far from over. Crist, a Republican, is running for Martinez's seat in 2010, so he's unlikely to fill the vacancy with an ambitious politician who'd want to challenge him next year. If his selection is seen as a weak caretaker, though, voters may blame Crist for sacrificing the state's interests in Washington for his own political future.

Florida's predicament is hardly unique. Shortly after President Obama was elected last year, then Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich was indicted and impeached for allegedly trying to sell Obama's vacated Senate seat to the highest bidder. And Caroline Kennedy's quest to be appointed to the New York Senate seat that Hillary Clinton vacated to become secretary of state turned into a national obsession. (Gov. David Paterson ultimately chose Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand for the spot.)

Now, a growing number of lawmakers and good-government groups are using the wave of Senate appointment controversies to push for a constitutional amendment that would end the practice by requiring states to hold special elections to fill vacated Senate seats. The amendment cleared a Senate subcommittee earlier this month, and the Senate Judiciary Committee may take it up soon. The House Judiciary Committee has held hearings on the amendment but hasn't voted on it yet. "On issues like healthcare and national security, Americans want elected leaders who are responsive to them," says California Rep. David Dreier, a Republican who introduced the measure in the House, "not to the single individual who appointed them."

With Martinez's resignation, the Senate stands to count six members who were appointed by governors. The glut followed Obama's election last fall, which opened up the Illinois seat and the one formerly held by Vice President Joe Biden in Delaware. Obama's selection of Clinton and of Colorado Sen. Ken Salazar as interior secretary cleared the way for two more appointments. "This is like swine flu," says Bob Edgar, president of Common Cause, which supports the amendment. "A rash of this illness has brought it national attention."

Five states mandate special elections for vacated Senate seats, but the rest allow governors to appoint replacements until the next congressional election, as stipulated by the Constitution's 17th Amendment. Critics say that besides bypassing voters, the system gives unelected senators unfair incumbency advantages if they seek another term. "These senators can mail constituents for free, dole out earmarks, and make news," says David Segal, an analyst for the group Fair Vote.

Opponents of the constitutional amendment, which needs two-thirds support in Congress to pass, say it meddles in states' affairs and burdens them with the costs of running special elections. And were a terrorist attack to claim the lives of many lawmakers, they argue, waiting for special elections could leave Congress paralyzed.

Even the measure's backers say it's difficult to get voters on board when issues like healthcare have a clearer impact on their lives. But Dreier feels momentum. "The American people," he says, "are always interested in democracy."